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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

It's been twenty years since lead was removed from household paint and gasoline, but millions of children in America are still living with dangerous levels of lead in their blood. Public health officials say it doesn't have to be that way because lead poisoning is one of the most preventable of childhood illnesses. In the fourth and final part of our series. "The Silent Epidemic", Deirdre Kennedy reports on the hidden sources of lead, and community efforts to protect children from exposure.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
It's been more than 20 years since lead was first removed from household paint and gasoline in America, but millions of children still live with dangerous levels of lead in their blood today. Public health officials say it doesn't have to be this way. Lead poisoning is one of the most preventable of childhood illnesses. In the fourth and final part of our series, "The Silent Epidemic," Deirdre Kennedy reports on the hidden sources of lead and community efforts to protect children from exposure.

(Milling voices; a trolley bell)

KENNEDY: In San Francisco's Chinatown, tourists and residents pack into a crowded weekend market to buy authentic Asian foods and household wares. One popular item is table ware from China. It's attractive, colorful, and inexpensive. But what most of these shoppers don't realize is that it's often covered in dangerous lead glaze.

(A phone rings)

KENNEDY: A few blocks away, Carolyn Mitchell with the group Consumer Action demonstrates just how much lead can be found on imported table ware from Latin America and Asia.

MITCHELL: So all you do is you take a lead check swab, shake it up (shaking sounds), and you rub it on there (rubbing metallic sounds) for about 30 seconds. And if it turns red, then there's lead. And there's so much lead in this one that it turns red pretty instantly.

KENNEDY: Heating or serving foods in such table ware can release large amounts of lead into food. For children, who absorb about half the lead they ingest, that can lead to dangerous lead poisoning over time. It's illegal in California to sell products containing toxins like lead without a warning label, but Consumer Action's Neil Gendel says government agencies just can't keep up with the illegal merchandise.

GENDEL: It comes in in all kinds of ways. It comes in through Mexico. It can come through Seattle, or it may come through the docks here. And the tourists come in from all over the country that shop in Chinatown and like this Asian ware and take it home with them.

KENNEDY: Consumer Action is one of many groups in San Francisco that are trying to educate people about the sources of lead in their homes and communities. They say some imported canned foods, toys, and candies sold in ethnic neighborhoods can contain high amounts of lead. Health workers have even found imported home remedies for stomachache containing nearly 100% lead tincture. Even products like Venetian blinds and calcium supplements have been found to contain trace amounts of lead.

(Traffic sounds)

KENNEDY: But these consumer products are far from the only problem. Millions of tons of lead remain in the environment from decades of commercial use. Karen Florini is a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund.

FLORINI: Well, lead is a naturally occurring element. In fact, it's the 38th most common element in the Earth's crust. So there is going to be some amount of lead naturally present in the environment. The trouble is that over the last decades and centuries, in fact, humans have dug up a lot of that lead, concentrated it, refined it, and put it into products that have been pretty effective in scattering it all around the environment.

KENNEDY: Ms. Florini says even though leaded paint and gasoline are no longer used in this country, their legacy is still with us.

FLORINI: So, along heavily traveled streets and highways, you can have a pretty heavy accumulation of lead in those soils. In addition, lead paint that deteriorated on the outsides of buildings, not just ordinary buildings but bridges and other kinds of steel structures, often had a very high content of lead, and so this all has been contaminated as a result of those uses of lead as well.

KENNEDY: And, she says, there's still no limit on the amount of lead that's used in industrial paint.

(Salsa music plays)

KENNEDY: San Francisco's Mission District has an unusually bad lead problem. Most of the buildings are very old. It has a major highway running through it, and a large immigrant population. Children in neighborhoods like this one are 4 times more likely to be lead poisoned than kids in more affluent areas.

CARMEN: ... I taught, and the kids are, like, distracted, don't focus well. And then, later, on I found out they have lead in the blood.

KENNEDY: Carmen is one of several teachers and residents attending Saturday workshops organized by the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, or SLUG. Lead educator Memo Tabuso talks to them about the dangers of lead.

TABUSO: It affects the nervous system, and the brain is a part of the nervous system, and that can lead to learning disabilities, problems with hearing, problems with speech, problems with the ability to pay attention and to concentrate.

KENNEDY: It can also lead to fatigue, anemia, and hyperactivity. And in severe cases kidney failure or even coma. The gardener's group advises residents not to eat vegetables grown in high-leaded soil. They say it's important to contain the soil with plants and sometimes even concrete, to avoid children getting the lead dust on their hands and then into their mouths. And lead educator Kevin Tennyson says diet is a particularly important factor.

TENNYSON: The body goes after calcium and the body goes after iron. And if there's lead in there and less of the other 2, then it's going to substitute that lead for the calcium, for the iron, and that's where you end up with child poisoning.

KENNEDY: Children's health experts say that's why it's especially important for children with other high-risk factors to get the right nutrition.

(Children laughing, playing, screaming)

KENNEDY: While soil is still a big problem in some neighborhoods, by far the most common lead problem for young children is dust from exposed leaded paint in dilapidated housing. A handful of states, including Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont, and California, have programs giving landlords financial help to control lead paint hazards. The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is also spending several million dollars on emergency lead paint programs in 60 US cities.

TOMASIC: You know what you can do in the meantime to keep the risk really
low? Is ...

KENNEDY: In San Francisco, HUD money is enabling small community groups to clean up some of the city's worst lead hazards. In this apartment building in the rundown tenderloin district, Michelle Tomasik and Michael Noon drop in on tenants with young children to look for lead hazards.

TOMASIK: It's very rare that I walk into an apartment and say oh this looks great, because there are just not, you know, very well kept up buildings. They're very, very old, and the friction points, the windows and the doorjambs, always find peeling paint there.

(Asks resident) Is there lead in there? Do you know?

MAN: Oh, yeah, we can -- on the lower levels...

KENNEDY: Michelle and Michael take samples of the dust and paint chips and send them to a lab for tests. If there is a lead problem, a city contracted crew will come in and repaint the unit. In the meantime...

TOMASIK: I tell them things that they can do, which is cover the chipping and cracked areas with either, like, shelf paper or tape, just something that contains it. And also wet wiping the areas down, and then throwing the sponge away.

KENNEDY: This program costs the landlords nothing, but Federal funding for the clean-up runs out this summer, and Michelle says without proper maintenance, these units may fall into disrepair again and the lead hazard will be back. Environmental attorney Karen Florini says in many poor areas across the country, properties are so run down that it would cost more for the landlords to fix the lead problem than the building is worth. It's a billion dollar problem, she says, that no one's made a commitment to handle.

FLORINI: So either the landlord has to go into the hole on the property, which most landlords aren't willing to do, or there have got to be governmental subsidies. The free market just can't take care of this problem on its own.

KENNEDY: But, she says, even when landlords and parents can't completely get rid of the lead hazard, there are still some basic steps they can take to minimize the risk to children.

WOMAN: No, don't eat her shoes.

(A baby gurgles)

WOMAN: It's not nice to eat shoes...

KENNEDY: Parents can cut down on the amount of lead dust children get in their mouths just by washing their hands often, especially after play and before they eat.

WOMAN: You're okay.

(Baby makes distressed sounds)

KENNEDY: And by improving their children's diet, they will automatically cut down on the amount of lead the child absorbs. They can also get test kits for paint, water, and soil from most hardware stores. And all parents should have the blood of their children tested if they're under age 6. Several states, including California, Massachusetts, and New York, require such testing. But it's estimated that still only a quarter of the nation's children are ever tested for lead poisoning. Karen Cohn of San Francisco's Health Department says the more parents know about the sources of lead, the more they can do to guard their children's health.

COHN: Health workers need to keep that in mind, that our job is not to scare parents. Our job is to make parents feel that they can keep their child healthy. There's things within their means, and that this is something that even if some damage has already been done, the child's already been diagnosed, that the important thing is that now we've found out about it. Now we can reverse those conditions and help this child recover.

MAN: Make sure the paint throughout most of the apartment is monitored...

KENNEDY: There are hundreds of community groups and health agencies across the country that can help parents get their kids tested and track down the sources of lead poisoning. Karen Cohn and other childhood lead experts say parents shouldn't wait for their child to get sick to take action. For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.

TOMASIC: Don't ever, ever, ever peel it off.

WOMAN 2: Really? We've been peeling it off.

TOMASIK: No. Because what happens is, the lead is a dust that we worry about. And when you peel it you're going to stir that dust up, it's going to land on the floor. You can't even see it...



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